The United States filed a civil complaint and a stipulation of settlement with Hobby Lobby last Wednesday over the company’s illegal importation of thousands of cuneiform tablets and bricks, clay bullae, and cylinder seals. According to the complaint, the ancient artifacts were smuggled in to the U.S. through the United Arab Emirates and Israel by way of packages labeled as “ceramic tiles” or “clay tiles (samples)” and shipped to three different Hobby Lobby corporate addresses in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Hobby Lobby, which paid $1.6 million for over 5,500 artifacts has agreed to forfeit the items and pay a $3 million fine. The company issued a statement saying in part that “The Company was new to the world of acquiring these items, and did not fully appreciate the complexities of the acquisitions process.” However, according to the Justice Department, Hobby Lobby retained an expert on cultural property law in 2010 and was advised that cuneiform tables and other related items were likely from Iraq and carried a high risk of having been looted from archaeological sites. The expert further warned the company that improperly declaring the artifacts’ country of origin on packaging could lead to seizure by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Other “red flags” the Justice Department says Hobby Lobby ignored include informal display of the artifacts when being inspected by Hobby Lobby’s president and consultant in July 2010; not meeting or communicating with the dealer claiming to own the artifacts; following payment instructions given by another dealer and wiring payments to seven personal bank accounts, none of which were in the name of the dealer claiming to own the artifacts.
According to the Hobby Lobby statement, the company began acquiring artifacts in 2009 because, “Developing a collection of historically and religiously important books and artifacts about the Bible is consistent with the Company’s mission and passion for the Bible.”
According to NPR, Hobby Lobby intends to display over 40,000 artifacts in its $400 million Museum of the Bible slated to open in November of this year.